The main UK Government legislation governing the rights of public transport users with disabilities or reduced mobility is in Part 12 of the Equality Act 2010, which applies to taxis, buses and coaches, and trains. It is supplemented by Part 3 of the Act, which covers the wider equality duty for the provision of goods, services and facilities across all modes. There is also mode-specific legislation and retained EU law which underpin disabled passengers’ rights, especially for rail, air and maritime travel. Taken together, these rights are listed by travel mode, in Department for Transport (DfT) Guidance on Rights of disabled passengers on transport.
Inclusive Transport Strategy
The DfT launched its Inclusive Transport Strategy (ITS) in 2018, with a range of targets and pledges relating to improving disabled people’s access to transport across all modes. The DfT also published ITS progress updates for 2018/2019 and 2019/2020.
In 2022, the Government added a scorecard of metrics to assess progress against the ITS targets. The scorecard forms part of the Government’s ‘baseline’ research into disabled people’s experiences using the transport network, before the ITS is fully implemented. The scorecard is expected to be updated annually up to 2024.
National Disability Strategy
In July 2021 the UK Government launched a government-wide National Disability Strategy (NDS). This set out “the actions the government will take to improve the everyday lives of all disabled people” and included a range of targets for different government departments. For the DfT, these targets included:
- an accessibility audit of all rail stations
- clearer audible and visual announcements on buses
- introducing legislation for taxis and private hire vehicles in Parliament
- £1 million to improve access at seaports
Following on from the NDS launch, in January 2022 the Government announced it was working with the charity Scope to produce a Disabled Persons Passenger Charter to act as a ‘one-stop shop’ on passenger rights and complaints procedures for disabled people.
The legality of the NDS, and the consultation which led to it, were successfully challenged in January 2022, when the High Court ruled that the Government had failed to carry out a ‘fair and lawful’ consultation of disabled people and this rendered the NDS unlawful. In June 2022 the Government said it was seeking to appeal the ruling and that it was “pausing a limited number of policies which are referred to in the strategy or are directly connected with it” in order to comply with it.
Much of the law covering the accessibility of the rail network is based on retained EU law, including EU-wide standards on rail accessibility and regulations on passenger rights and obligations. There are also several pieces of domestic primary and secondary legislation, which have implications for the accessibility of the rail network.
Legislation covers the accessible design of railway stations, trains, trams and light rail vehicles through to the rights disabled passengers have when using the railway. All station and train operators must publish and follow an Accessible Travel Policy as a condition of their licence from the Office of Rail and Road.
The UK Government and the Scottish Government have a joint Code of Practice on the accessible design of railway stations. The Code sets the design standards for various aspects of a station from the car parks through to the design of ticket offices and platforms, which station operators must adhere to as a condition of their Licence “whenever they install, renew or replace” a station’s infrastructure. Funding for improvements at railway stations comes from a range of funding pots, although the main source of funding for the accessibility of railway stations is the Government’s Access for All programme. Most stations do not have step-free access or level access between the platform and the train. According to the independent Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (PDTAC), which advises the DfT, railway stations are a long way from being fully accessible, with significantly more investment needed to raise standards to this level.
Trains, trams and light rail
There are different sets of regulations covering the accessibility of mainline train services and other rail vehicles, such as light rail and trams. Operators had until 1 January 2020 to comply with these accessibility standards. Most trains are now compliant with accessibility standards. However, several companies required dispensations from the Government to give them more time to comply.
Assistance for rail passengers
Passenger Assist is a service provided by train companies to help disabled passengers and other passenger who may need assistance getting to the platform or boarding trains. Many disabled passengers are unaware of the assistance available for them. However, satisfaction with the service is generally high among those who use it, based on data from the ORR.
Buses and coaches
Buses and coaches need to comply with regulations covering the design of the vehicles themselves through to rules over the assistance provided to disabled passengers. Retained EU law provides bus and coach passengers with certain rights when they travel. Under the Bus Services Act 2017, the Secretary of State has the power to make regulations to require the provision of audio-visual information to passengers, such as the direction the bus is travelling in and when the next stop is coming. The introduction of these powers followed a campaign by Guide Dogs for the Blind and others. Without audio-visual information, people with visual impairments can struggle to know if they have caught the right bus or when their stop is.
Only around 30% of buses in use in England outside London provided audio-visual information to passengers, as of the end of 2020/21. Following consultation in 2018, the Government intends to lay regulations later in 2022 requiring operators to provide this information.
Currently, 99% of buses comply with the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations 2000. However, parts of the coach fleet, such as those used for rail replacement bus services and home-to-school transport, are not fully compliant, despite the deadline for vehicles to comply by 1 January 2020. The Government has continued to provide exemptions for these services to allow non-compliant vehicles to continue to be used.
Unless they have an exemption certificate, taxi and Private Hire Vehicle (PHV) drivers must accept the carriage of disabled passengers, provide them with appropriate assistance, and refrain from charging them more than other passengers would pay for the same service. These rights, under the Equality Act 2010, were extended to all disabled users (and not only wheelchair users) via the Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Disabled Persons) Act 2022, which was originally a Private Members Bill.
Ongoing issues include an overall decline in the numbers of wheelchair accessible taxis and PHVs, the continued levels of taxi drivers refusing to drive disabled passengers (despite this being an offence), and a lack of mandated disability awareness training for taxi drivers across the UK (except in Northern Ireland where it is a legal requirement).
Under retained EU law (PDF), airports must provide disabled passengers or people with reduced mobility (PRM) with personal assistance at the airport, if provided with at least 48 hours’ notice. Airlines must also allow carriage of wheelchairs and mobility equipment on flights, and assistance dogs when necessary.
Since 2015, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has collected data from airports to compile an annual Airport Accessibility Report. This report awards airports a ranking based largely on the amount of time that disabled passengers or PRM must wait for assistance. The most recent report was published in 2020 and showed improvements in airport accessibility provision, despite the numbers of people requiring assistance having doubled since 2015. However, the CAA noted that in Spring 2022 there were numerous stories of disabled people having to wait for extended periods for airport assistance, due to high demand and industry labour shortages. In June 2022, the CAA wrote to airports demanding they produce action plans to tackle such waiting times, or face enforcement action.
Rights of disabled maritime passengers or PRM are set out in retained EU law, which gives them the right to travel by ship at the same price as any other passenger, and to bring wheelchairs, mobility equipment or assistance dogs when necessary. DfT guidance specifies certain exceptions to these rules, for instance where allowing carriage might risk a ship’s safety requirements, where the design of a ship or dock would make it impractical, or where someone may require medical assistance onboard that cannot realistically be provided.
Under commitments made in the ITS, the DfT published an industry toolkit for Maritime passenger rights in January 2021. Under commitments made in the National Disability Strategy, in October 2021 the DfT sought funding bids for improvements to disabled access for ferries to the Isle of Wight and Isles of Scilly.
There are a number of organisations working to improve transport provision for disabled people and seeking to influence government policy. The Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS) can provide advice and support on discrimination issues and the applicable law. Scope offer advice for disabled people using public transport, and Guide Dogs offer advice for those travelling with assistance dogs. Transport for All also have a dedicated helpline and webpage for disabled people who have a transport issue.
Information on other transport issues affecting disabled people can be found in the Commons Library briefings on Blue Badge parking scheme and the Motability vehicle scheme.